A friend of mine recently returned from a lengthy trip throughout Europe. A perceptive fellow, he coined a phrase that made an indelible impression on me. He said that he thoroughly enjoyed the Scandinavian countries as well as Germany, France and Austria, but that “Italy is the dessert” of Europe.
What he meant was that he had the “sweetest” experience of his trip with the charm, fun and pleasure that this sunny, artful and vineyard-laden country can provide. Just about everyone who’s been to Italy will tell you they had the greatest meal of their lives in some small, out-of-the way restaurant. Sublime food, stunning wine. It’s not just the fresh ingredients, fresh as an hour ago, close as the next pasture. And it’s not just the romance of the place either, though that will cast a spell. It’s also the cherished roots in family, a no-hurry approach, valuing moments for themselves, which in America we think of as quaint and exotic (and in business, rather frustrating). It does not occur to Italians to renovate their sometimes crumbling medieval buildings or widen the streets for the sake of convenience or efficiency, as we would. The past is precious, and beauty is preserved for its own sake.
When it comes to Italian wine, the “sweet spot,” where many of the classical investment-grade wines are crafted, is the magnificent hills of Tuscany. Our Italian editor, Monica Larner, has rated and reviewed more than 300 wines of Tuscany, and you can find her reviews in this issue’s Buying Guide (page 67) as well as online (www.winemag.com/buyingguide). Beyond the reviews, however, she has some keen insight into the future of the iconic wines of the region. The title of her report, “Arrivederci, Super Tuscan” tells you that it is a provocative look at these great, ageworthy wines.
The term “super Tuscan” was coined in the 1970s to denote wines that had broken free of the restrictive DOC regulations governing Italian winemaking. The movement, led by Marchese Piero Antinori with his classic Tignanello, represented a rebel spirit and a commitment to quality above all else. But now, say the producers, the term has lost its meaning: It tells you nothing about where the fruit was grown, what’s in the bottle in terms of variety and whether the cost to the consumer is congruent with its quality. The producers now feel that the overall growth of Tuscan wine and its global popularity, especially in light of the growing sophistication of the average wine consumer, is spurring a re-evalution of the way these wines are identified.
If this sounds like just marketing-speak among Italian producers and of little interest to the consumer, think again. Bottom line, the producers are saying is that the term “super Tuscan” is no longer a guarantee of style or quality. Since anyone can slap that term on a wine and charge whatever they want for it, it’s buyer beware. For the Italian wine devotee, the story, and the accompanying reviews, are a must-read.
Also in this issue, Kathleen Buckley examines the phenomenon of educational holidays: If you’re tired of just lying on a beach or playing golf but would like to devote part of your vacation time to learning winemaking, cheesemaking or chef-level cooking, there are plenty of companies that can help you do that. In that same spirit of exploration, on page 48 you’ll find our report on American winemakers who are growing winegrapes that are traditionally associated with Europe: Lagrein, Roussane, Marsanne and so on. It’s a great way for winemakers to explore different possibilites, particularly in blends, and a good story for the reader who’s looking to break outside the box and try something new.
Also in this issue, you’ll find our spirits tasting director’s definitive take on Tequila: which bottlings across the many styles of Tequila are worth your money, and which brands are diversifying most successfully. And to return to Italy, Monica Larner explores pizza, and how to make true Italian pizza at home.
During the course of her research, Larner took a pizza-making course in Rome, and when her first pizza was disappointing to the “professor” he said to her in a classic example of the Italian temperament in all its prideful, impatient, dismissive and yet charming glory, “That pizza is so ugly it would make an onion cry.” How can you not smile?